Biographer unearths layers of Carnegie’s complexity
Biographer David Nasaw realized that his subject had been dissected, parsed and examined again and again.
Another book on Andrew Carnegie, therefore, would have to go beyond what had been written on the man who looms large in the history of Pittsburgh and the United States.
For almost six years, he worked on his subject, traveling across the United States and to England, Scotland and Wales, tracking down documents and leads. He trolled the Internet for information, and read everything he could find on Carnegie.
Only then was he ready to begin a task that would result in the work of a lifetime.
“You’ve got to start all over again,” says Nasaw, author of “Andrew Carnegie,” one of two new books by authors who took on the Herculean task of penning biographies of major players in Pittsburgh’s — and the nation’s — history. The other book, “An American Life: Mellon,” by David Cannadine, will be featured in Sunday’s Living section.
“There has been so much written about these guys,” says Nasaw, who will appear Tuesday at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s main branch in Oakland. “And so much of it is apocryphal or anecdotal or rumor or built on supposition that the only way to do justice to the subject is to render a true picture, to give credit where credit is due, and exposing the warts and the sores where you must.
“And to do that, you have to start from the beginning with primary sources.”
What emerges is a portrait of a man of immense complexity, one who often was reviled in his lifetime but whose legacy is one of the most impressive and enduring of the industrialists of his age. Branded as one of the robber barons of the era, Carnegie, born in Scotland in 1835, dominated the production of steel in the late 19th century. The fortune he would earn from that business, along with shrewd investments, arguably made him the wealthiest man of his times.
He amassed that wealth via practices that would not be viable today. His role in the Homestead Strike of 1892, which culminated in the infamous gun battle of July 6 and the loss of 10 lives, particularly left an indelible black mark on his legacy.
Nothing Carnegie did, however, was considered illegal. According to Nasaw, Carnegie “understood how the game was played, and he had a very smart tutor in Tom Scott (Carnegie’s supervisor at the Pennsylvania Railroad, where he worked as telegraph messenger at age 17). He played at the margins. He never fell off the margins into illegality, but he took advantage of everything he could in making his money.”
The standard story of Carnegie, says Nasaw, also author of “The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst,” is that, when he starts to devote more of his efforts to philanthropy, he became “a nicer, gentler, more humble employer and businessman. Well, the opposite was the case. One of the reasons why he was so ruthless in earning a profit was that he wasn’t earning it for himself, but the larger community. And that sort of pushed him further. He spent a lot of time with lawyers, a lot of time in court defending a variety of deals, but he never broke the law.
“Some of the stuff he did would be considered illegal today, but you have to remember that insider trading wasn’t considered illegal till the 1930s when the Security Exchange Commission was founded, and when a lot of the practices people are sent to jail for today were rendered as crimes.”
No one of his generation, however, had Carnegie’s philanthropic foresight. He viewed his astounding wealth as a temporary blessing. Thus, his legacy includes hundreds of libraries bearing his name and a number of philanthropic organizations, including the Carnegie Institution, the nonprofit scientific research organization, the Carnegie Corporation and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s rather remarkable that here was this little Scotsman, this Scotch-American who looked like Santa Claus, dedicating himself to making the world a better place,” Nasaw says. “That’s an example that’s worth as much as the dollars that have gone into these institutions.”
At the end of his life, Carnegie devoted most of his time to trying to bring about world peace. Foreseeing the advent of World War I, he sought out world leaders in an effort to stave off what he believed would be millions of needless deaths. He gave speeches, wrote letters to editors and “used every ounce of authority he had accumulated as a businessman to push forward the cause of world peace,” Nasaw says.
When hostilities broke out, Carnegie returned to the United States to try to get President Woodrow Wilson to intervene. Again he failed, and once he realized the war will go on “until all the nations of Europe are bled white,” Carnegie lapsed into a long silence that lasted the rest of his life.
The man who had been so voluble, so full of life, rarely spoke to anyone during his last years, and retreated until his death in 1919.
“He’s a figure of a pre-Freudian universe,” Nasaw says. “He’s a 19th-century character, almost a Victorian, who believes that reason defines humanity, that people are going to be able to see what’s coming from war before it comes. When he realizes it’s not the case, it’s too much for him.”
Nasaw adds: “The man is a bundle of contradictions, and only bad novelists resolve contradictions. Good novelists and good biographers don’t resolve contradictions, because we are all filled with contradictions.” Additional Information:
What: Talk and book signing by author of ‘Andrew Carnegie’ (Penguin, $35, 878 pages)
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Admission: $5 suggested donation
Where: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Oakland
Details: 412-622-3114 or www.clpgh.org